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Science Journalists

What about the economics angle of science stories?

January 22, 2010 posted in Sci.Journalism
 Sarka Spevakova, who attended the 11th Annual Global Development Conference in Prague, last week, explains why science journalists should look at the economics angle of a story.

Can a conference on economics be in line for a science journalist? The answer may be YES – for many reasons as you´ll see bellow.

The 11th Global Development Conference, in Prague, 13 – 19 January 2010, focused on globalization and regional integration in the context of the recent crisis – and this crisis is responsible for the loss of jobs for many of us. This might be a good reason why we, as science journalists, should also take into account the economics angle of a story.

The good news is that hundreds and thousands of the brightest economic brains around the world are working on the solutions. The bad news is they have no idea, why this crisis occurred. Why such a minor cause as subprime in the United States catapulted to the global range and led to a world chaos which affected the whole world (except China – of course).

Some of the speakers were brave enough to suggest several alternatives of future development: 1) the Crisis will lead to revolutionary changes of the market, the new model has to be an alternative to the Anglo-American. New global sustainable financial architecture has to be created and

global regulatory coordination and major structural reform has to be set, otherwise crisis will happen again; 2) the Crisis will lead to a moderate evolution of the financial system; and 3) the Crisis will lead to no change at all and it is going to have no influence on anything.

No wonder several of the speakers gave a slight sigh and regretted that economics does not provide hard data like natural sciences. It is the fact that economists have no theory that can forecast another crisis. Furthermore, understanding is not enough, it is necessary to reach agreement at the global level. And even furthermore, economists have to help decide politicians what works and what does not, albeit politicians are local and see no reason why should they sacrifice anything for the global.

From the worldwide scale, the conference shifted to the continental one where economists strived to both give and learn lessons for regional integration from the European Union experience. Is the EU Sui Generis? A plenary session arrived to the conclusion that the EU has become the role model for regional integration elsewhere indeed, see box Integration.

From the continental scale, the conference then moved to individual countries. One of the parallel sessions focused on international migration, when people are working in host countries, and the role remittances play. The overall view is that this money sent back home to families contributes in many ways to reduce poverty and facilitate access to better education and health care, see box Migration.

Each Global Development Conference is the occasion to provide awards to young researchers from the developing world. Finalists of the 2009 Global Development Awards Competition make their presentations at the Conference.

The Border Green Energy Team (BGET) provides hands-on appropriate technology training and financial support to village innovators in ethnic minority areas on both sides of the Thai/Burma border.
A project called “Empowering refugees through Sustainable Technology” was aimed at providing hands-on appropriate technology training and financial support to village innovators in ethnic minority areas on both sides of the Thai/Burma border. There were many programs aimed at improving living conditions, access to education and health care.

Science journalists can be struck by a paramount difference in the angle in which not only technology but the health care as well is embraced. The newest methods of treatment, drugs of the latest generation or advanced surgical techniques usually lie within their field of vision.

On the contrary, for social scientists drawing up programs how to get basic health care to people is fundamental. Finally, the role of economists is to assess whether the respective program works. Therefore the international development community took the Millennium Development Goals, including reductions in child and mother mortality and communicable diseases in Africa and Asia, as a target for monitoring. Empirical analysis can guide policy formulation afterwards, see boxes Development Programs and Project Evaluation.

Back to the global scale and a sphere more familiar to science writers: Lord Anthony Giddens, social theorist, spoke on climate change. He stressed that we must recognize we are on the verge of permanent change with great consequences. He also offered a reason why Copenhagen was a failure although it is a matter of mankind survival: 120 nations had to agree but just a relatively small group of nations can reach agreement and actions. Therefore multilateral agreements are needed as well as lateral and the world needs to have new global architecture. Industrial countries must take a lead and must have effective policies – if not, the case is lost.

Managing many is hard. The key question is: How do financial markets function? People dash against boundaries of cognition in economics.

Blind technological optimism can be dangerous so the return of common sense is badly needed. Economic freedom is not synonymous with deregulated market, regulation can be market friendly. Financial markets are the most vulnerable markets and we have to insert some stability and realize that moral values do play a major role!

So it seems that in the case of climate changes economists are taking over the baton from scientists. And that is the crucial point.

In order to implement recommendations given by scientists it is essential to understand the function of markets and mechanisms of power. Scientists have to understand why certain shifts they suggest are carried out, as in the case of CFC – chlorofluorocarbons, and why others are not, as in the case of climate change. This issue has to be clear to science journalists as well.

Sarka Spevakova, in Prague



The European Union has become the role model for regional integration. Yet, for all their efforts, no other region has repeated the EU’s success. Are there factors that make the EU unique? Is the EU Sui Generis?

Luk Van Langehove – not surprisingly – gave three answers: 1. Yes. 2. Just a little bit. 3. No. All of them are right depending on the angle: 1) the EU as a successful Free Trade Area; 2) the EU as a federal unit of governance; and 3) the EU as a global player.

EU integration was considered as highly successful (except for its agriculture policy, which is a shame) and other countries can replicate it.


There are more than 200 million estimated international migrants in the world today. If these people were to be united in one single country, this country would be the fifth most populated nation in the world.

For example, in the Republic of Moldova in 2006, about 1.4 million people out of total population of 3.4 million received remittances. In 2008 remittances reached 1897 million USD - 38.3 % of the GDP! In Moldova, extra purchasing power coming from remittances is used for consumer durables and services, significantly contributing to the reduction of poverty and boosting demand for local goods and services.

Egypt has been a major exporter of labor to oil rich Arab countries and more recently they are heading to Europe. A survey in Egypt revealed that migrant women increase the probability of surviving of their children. Remittances increase the access to private hospitals, where the health care is better, and therefore make room for the poorest in public hospitals. It also reduces the need of child work.

In Jamaica and St Lucia, migration of nurses has a twofold impact on health care. One one hand, the nurses’ exodus is accelerates the loss of even a small number of health professionals, leading to further deterioration in the health system on one hand. On the other hand, when retired nurses return, they undertake voluntarily work, bringing their experience and often collecting money for better equipment in hospitals.

Development Programs

The Border Green Energy Team (BGET), which started in 2005, improves access to clean and sustainable energy which leads to clean water, food and health care. This project is unique as is the only one providing energy – other relief programs are aimed at providing food and shelter.

Project Thai Solar Home Systems includes teaching villagers and local government technicians about proper operation and maintenance and ensuring the proper removal and recycling of dead batteries.

The Refugee Camp Trainings is both a vocational and general education endeavor. Children in these camps have no identity and therefore cannot register to schools. Curriculum for the project includes following renewable and sustainable energy technologies: hydraulic ram pumping, micro-hydro power systems, solar electricity, solar-powered water pumping, and solar cooking. Hybrid solar/diesel systems that power computer classrooms rooms in seven Karen refugee camps along the Thai–Burma border were built.

BGET works with border medical clinics and their staffs to provide solar power systems and the necessary expertise to operate and maintain the systems and helps rural communities to build and sustainably operate bio-digesters.

The Community Hydraulic Ram Pump System project enables rural communities pump a constant water supply, delivering the water to their village when the water source is distant from the village.

Project evaluation

The international development community embraced twenty innovative health programs for monitoring, wanting to know whether respective programs really have potential to improve health conditions.

Three studies were presented. An innovative insurance program in Karnataka, India, designed to protect against big risks, an attempt to use cash transfers to influence sexual behavior of school-age girls in Malawi (when girls attend school regularly they are less probable to have sex, get married and retrieve HIV), and a program aimed at improving maternal healthcare in Peru.

The cost of making evaluation is actually very small and therefore all of the new programs should be evaluated. Evaluation relies on collecting various relevant data and then using proper calculation.

As science journalists we always leave this part out as the broad public wouldn´t understand anyway, so I´ll skip it likewise. Reporting from an economic conference matches reporting from a science conference for once. Assessment of pilot projects, which are relatively inexpensive, can provide a lead to politicians which large scale expensive programs to implement.

 Climate change

Climate change differs from any other problem that, as collective humanity, we face today, believes Anthony Giddens.

At the moment, however, we do not have systematic politics. Beside the two well known groups with different attitudes to climate change: 1) – skeptics, who claim that climate changes are not happening or are of natural cause and that Earth is robust while people small, and 2) the IPCC scientists, who claim that climate changes are dangerous and will be more and profound, and that Earth is in fact vulnerable, Giddens mentioned third group, 3) the radicals, who claim that some changes can be very rapid, Earth is like a wild beast and people are busy pricking it.

Giddens insists that new innovations in the global political architecture have to be introduced:
  1. Pioneer new politics of long term 20 to 30 years planning cycle and not the traditional top-down type. Recognize the crucial role of the market and the new technologies. New partnership between government and market has to be established. 2°C increase is inevitable and we have to think out insurance and coverage for the poor affected: not just channel money but also integrate and adopt low tech and high tech.
  2. We have to overcome political polarization, left-right division, as climate change faces us all. We have to have support of the majority of population.
  3. Stop talking about climate change as a cost and a burden, the truth is the opposite. GDP is not a measure of welfare. Looking for solutions is connected with energy security and to be at the vanguard makes a country competitive in time of transformation. We have to have new models of development, new concepts.
  4. Everybody has an important role – social innovations will be even more important than technology. We are living in an unsustainable civilization now but we need different type of economy and society, a new world. This way of thinking, Giddens calls “Utopian Realism”.

One of the rare jokes on climate change (presented by Lord Anthony Giddens):
Two planets are talking to each other. First planet says: I feel ill, I have homo sapiens. The second planet retorts: Don´t worry, it won´t last long.

Global development Network
GDN is a leading international organization working with developing country researchers and policy research institutes to support the generations and sharing of world-class policy relevant research on development, helping to strengthen capacity in the process.

Regional and Global Integration: Quo Vadis?
The conference was focused on key issues such as globalization, regional integration and international migration against the backdrop of the current global economic and financial crisis, the political and economic repercussions of which can already be felt across countries and regions. More than 400 people from all over the world for three days in January 16 – 18, 2010, debated and discussed new economic models as the conventional thinking about globalization was shaken and left us in a no man’s land.


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